Thursday, February 17, 2011

(No.137) New Orleans revisited

The state of Louisiana has one of the most interesting political, cultural and social histories of any American state, by turns fascinating, rewarding, curious and dark. The depth of interest it generates extends far beyond the new slogan of the New Orleans Convention Bureau: "New Orleans. You're different here."

Pat and I have been visiting Louisiana off and on for more than 25 years and, latterly, outside New Orleans -- especially the capital of Baton Rouge and west to Lafayette and Cajun country where the Acadian exiles from Canada settled. Also a source of great pleasure have been our visits to most of the antebellum homes along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Southern Louisiana includes New Iberia and Bayou Teche, the setting for most of James Lee Burke's series of novels featuring detective Dave Robicheaux. The central character, a descendant of Acadians, is out of step with much of his environment but is a product of the American south. As Burke has Robicheaux observe in one of the novels:"No matter how educated a southerner is, or how liberal or intellectual he might consider himself to be, I don't believe you will meet many of my generation who do not still revere, although perhaps in a secret way, all the old southern myths that we've supposedly put aside as members of the New South." (A Stained White Radiance, 1992)

Baton Rouge has much to recommend it, not least the New York-style 34 story art deco skyscraper capital building the construction of which was organized in the depression of the 1930s in a (then) dirt poor state by its populist demagogue governor Huey Long. The building was completed in 1932 and on Sept 8, 1935 Long, by then a U.S. senator, was shot while near its elevators -- supposedly by a doctor but likely by his own bodyguards (who fired somewhere between 30 and 60 rounds). He died two days later. Today the building is an official U.S. historic landmark and visitors can still come to the spot in the capital where Long was shot and see the bullet holes.

Baton Rouge is also the home base of the disgraced televangelist I have long regarded as the best 'stump preacher' in that strange world: Jimmy Swaggart. Any visit to Baton Rouge should include attending a Sunday service at Jimmy's very large Family Worship Center; every service is a show, an experience not to be missed. [For an account of one of our visits see my column of Jan.4, 2009 "Falling from grace in Baton Rouge: being hugged by Jimmy Swaggart" on RickardsRead.com, (column No.3, posted Jan.4, 2009).

But what makes Louisiana a particularly fascinating place for me is its political and cultural history, one that includes a long story of racial divide and political corruption stretching through until today. It is one of America's poorest states (for example, it is the worst in terms of overall health outcomes in the US) as well as one of America's most unfortunate. Most recently the Katrina hurricane (2005) produced massive destruction in parts of New Orleans much of it remaining unrepaired today with only 2/3 of its pre-Katrina population; the BP oil spill in the neighbouring Gulf waters (2010) was a heavy blow to the local economy as was the post-2007 recession (2010 New Orleans real estate foreclosures were up 79% over 2008).

The political dynasty begun by "the Kingfish", Huey Long, in 1928 helped make political corruption inseparable from Louisiana politics over the decades. A recent example was provided by Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson whose $90,000 of bribe money was found by federal authorities secreted in his freezer.

While we were visiting New Orleans recently the city's daily newspaper, The Times-Picayune, whose coverage of local politics and regional matters is excellent, reported that 83 year old former governor Edwin Edwards, now serving the final 6 months of his prison term in home detention at his daughter's house, is being inundated with calls of interest and well wishes.

New Orleans is regaining tourist traffic which declined sharply post-Katrina. The French Quarter, the tourist magnet of New Orleans, has much to offer to punters, offerings both good and bad. On the weekends, especially in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras (this year the big day is March 8), Bourbon Street in the French Quarter teems with the young, the curious as well as a significant representation of society's detritus.

We had not visited Bourbon Street in years. It is the street whose name has a cachet for young males which time has not dented, only enlarged. It has long been the home of the loud and the gross. By coincidence I had read an article recently in which a local musician and tour guide complained that New Orleans' rich musical history is being trashed, that Bourbon Street ( a supposed home of American jazz) "is becoming a pedestrian mall with beer go-cups. It is a sad state," she said, "when our iconic street has been reduced to loudly amplified versions of 'Cheeseburger in Paradise' ".

In the few places where jazz is still performed on Bourbon Street (where the beer and strip joints and rock music predominate) it is often drowned out by ear-piercing music from nearby bars. Today Bourbon Street is a Disneyland for the puking, drunken and mindless but it is, fortunately, unrepresentative of the rest of the French Quarter which still recalls a fascinating part of Louisiana history.

According to one New Orleans resident with whom we talked, the whole downtown area and not just the French Quarter is jammed at the peak of Mardi Gras with hundreds of thousands of partiers and becomes for a time very much like Bourbon Street. Indeed the scene is complete with old transit buses used by the police as mobile cages into which to throw and (when full) transport drunk and disorderly visitors. "Walk by one of these," he said, "and the smell of vomit and feces would knock you over." As he told us "the city does not want people to know that the absolute worst time to visit and appreciate the real New Orleans is Mardi Gras."

This unappealing picture of New Orleans during Mardi Gras is, in fact, more than offset by the reality of what this city and state offer year round to the visitor. For example: Louisiana is the setting and an inspiration for the novels of Louisiana native and resident James Wilcox (see my comments on Wilcox in "Does God look like Mayor Binwanger?", column No.128 of Dec.20, 2010 on RickardsRead.com). The city offers a wide variety of galleries and museums including three Pat and I enjoy particularly: the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the Contemporary Art Center and the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). All feature special exhibitions throughout the year.

The Ogden has in its permanent collection a couple of works that caught my attention. One by Clyde Broadway titled "Trinity - Elvis and Jesus and Robert E. Lee", a rather striking acrylic image presenting the three people named side by side bordered in fluffy pink. The other is a very large 1994 canvas "Young Life", a painting by Bo Bartlett showing a young father, rifle in hand, standing with his wife against the background of an older model pickup truck with a deer on top of the cab and a young boy standing off to the side; an absorbing and enigmatic image.

Our recent and first post-Katrina visit to the New Orleans Museum of Art renewed our pleasure from viewing the NOMA's idiosyncratic special holdings arising from the donation to NOMA of private collections: these range, for example, from an extensive collection of Faberge pieces, to a large collection of portrait miniatures, through two rooms of federal period furniture and objects to a collection of miniature Chinese snuff bottles.

The NOMA's permanent collection is by itself more than large and interesting enough to make a visit worthwhile. It includes galleries dedicated to Asian, Oceanic, African, Pre-Columbian and native American art. It also features interesting works of European art from the 15th through the 20th centuries.

There are some rewarding pieces by French artists such as Manet, Sisley, Renoir and Pissaro. There are also two oils by one of my favourite painters James Jacques Tissot (1836-1902), a French artist who I think did his best work while he was in England from 1871 to 1882. The two small Tissot paintings are "The terrace at Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich" done ca.1878 and "Going to business" (1879).

New Orleans offers a satisfying variety of rewarding experiences but our advice is to avoid Mardi Gras.

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New Orleans connections and sources:

1. The best and frankest guide for visitors is one of the "Unofficial Guide" series: The Unofficial Guide to New Orleans
2. New Orleans Museum of Art: www.noma.org
3. Ogden Museum of Southern Art: www.ogdenmuseum.org
4. Contemporary Art Centre: www.cacno.org
5. selected Louisiana & New Orleans official sites:
www. neworleanscvb.com
www.neworleansonline.com
www.louisianatravel.com

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Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca